Human consciousness is observational, experiential, and interpretive. That is not a scientific statement, nor is it undeniably true, but it is one of the ways we describe the human condition. Let’s accept it, conditionally, and move on.
Humans experience both internal and external state. We observe the world, on the one hand, through our external sensors. We observe ourselves, on the other hand, through our emotions. There is also an in-between space where sensations and emotions are difficult to distinguish. Emotions cause sensations of pain and pleasures. Sensations create emotions of fear and joy. Some parts of our bodies communicate to the central nervous system through sensation, others through emotion, and some a mixture. You might say that being human is an ambiguous and confusing experience, although you might find yourself in a tautology.
Perhaps being human is unavoidably tautological.
The experience of being human includes the experience of discreet phenomena, both within and without. We can be hungry, and then sated. We can identify distinct objects in our visual field, or distinct sounds in our auditory field; also distinct tactile, olfactory, and taste sensations. There may be reason to doubt the accuracy of our interpretation of sensory discreteness. Such experiences, and such concepts as things and objects which derive from them, may be purely inventions, projected onto the continuous multi-dimensional fields of which the physical universe is—or appears to be, according to the theories of physics—composed. But for each person, the identification of such discrete objects is a foundational assumption. We form relationships with objects, and with the spirits that seem to inhabit them. Without them, our lives would be incoherent. We can accept the existence of such things, too, conditionally, for now.
I am attempting to set aside philosophical questions which destabilize discussion of how we understand reality. It seems as though, without some assumptions to take for granted, it is impossible to discuss anything, and all attempts at communication dissolve into gibberish and scribbles.
Let us make an assertion, without attempting to question it. The assertion is thus: human experience is grounded in desire. Our sense of the world is organized around impulses to change it. We interpret these impulses, after the fact, based on outcomes, as self-interested attempts to make the world provide things which benefit us. There is a close relationship between desire and discomfort. Desire is to remove discomfort (or pain) and to provide comfort (or pleasure). Because of the intertwining of sensation and emotion, this is not a simple dynamic. Moreover, pain and pleasure are like the atoms of experience. We rarely deal with fundamental elements directly. Most of life’s experiences, and the nature of most of our relationships with other objects and spirits in the world, are complex compositions of different kinds of atomic experience. We can try to reduce them to their components, but in general, this does not work. They are too many, too variable, and somehow insufficient. The composite experience is always more than the sum of its parts.
Our response to nearly all such complex experiences can be placed along a continuum with two extremes. An experience either satisifies a desire, or it aggravates one. In the very middle, it has neutral impact. It may also be possible to introduce a second, orthogonal continuum: recognition. Some phenomena are distinct and familiar. Some are ambiguous and uncertain. Some are invisible and unrecognized. We pay attention, primarily, to experiences and phenomena which are more recognizable, and strongly desire-effective: that is, the extremes on the scale of satisfying or aggravating.
Complicating this is that as various experiences affect our state of desire, our response to such experiences changes, too. I propose that while recognizable experiences can readily travel in both directions, fluidly, along the scale of satisfaction, that they are either fixed along the scale of recognition, or only slowly move from the invisible to the comprehendable as our brains are able to detect consistent patterns, and so resolve discrete natures out of the maelstrom of unattended environmental background reconfiguration, and its accompanying sensational hiss. We filter out most of our surroundings, without being consciously aware of it. Not only do we ignore what is currently irrelevant to our internal state of desire, much of what surrounds us is incomprehensible and invisible, no matter how hard we look. Only rarely do we learn to see what was previously indistinguishable from nothingness.
Dear reader, you are probably asking, “What of it?”
Our purpose is to draw a distinction between two abstractions. On the one hand, we have desire (and its opposite, perhaps disgust, or aversion). On the other, we have something else. Can you guess what it is? I already mentioned it.
Affect, it might be called. Or agency. Or power. Or action. It is the nature of some discrete things, mostly what we would call living things, but most importantly, our bodies, to have the capacity to alter the world around us. Even more fundamentally, as experiential selves (assuming, for now, the reality of such things), to control our own body as if by our own will.
There is an argument that this experience of agency is an illusion. That, at best, our consciousness is but a passenger in this experience of life and embodiment. Who knows? It doesn’t feel passive or powerless. But the power might, in fact, come not from our will or choice, but from some deeper mechanism. It may be impossible to know, but most scientists seem to believe that the sense of personal autonomous control is mistaken. I personally argue that, in constrast to either half of this argument, that it is coincident and completely integrated. Our feeling of agency is the same as our automatic drive. The attempt to disentangle them is pointless. We may never know.
Now we must complicate matters. In order for our conscious will to effect change in the world, we must have some way of associating the intended result with some chosen action. We must acknowledge both some form of memory of the results of prior actions, and some means of estimating the outcome of new actions: imagination, in the realm of conscious thought, and habit or instinct, in the realm of the unconscious.
Habits and instincts are interesting to the biologist and behaviourist. But we, who attempt to discover insights—and draw conclusions—about conscious choices, must consider the imagination, in addition to the capacity of reason.
Let’s step back a bit.
Humans observe the world. We learn to distinguish things in space, and their transformations in time. We discover a connection between the configuration of the world, and our internal experiences. We identify repeating patterns. We learn that our actions appear to alter the configuration of things in the world. We also learn that our actions respond to our will, or at least our desire: we act automatically in some cases, and “deliberately” (at least, in response to conscious thoughts) in others. We observe changes in our internal states, in our sensations and emotions, seemingly in response to these changes in the external world. We learn the cycle of intention, action, cause, effect, and experience. We learn of our own individuality, and learn to recognize our selves. We learn that we prefer the world to be in some configurations in contrast to others. We learn to see patterns in our desires, in our actions, and in our satisfactions. We learn to associate our positive experiences with some phenomena, and our negative experiences with others.
In short, through living, acting, observing, and experience, we develop a set of aesthetic opinions about how we want the world to be. We internalize these preferences, and aggregate them into a comprehensive worldview. But, at their base, they are not organized around any fundamental principle other than our own selves. Even to the degree that we learn our preferences, not from our own direct experiences, but by observing others, and learning, with the power of language, the interpretations of others, we are still responsible for approving and accepting those interpretations. (Really, such integration of the beliefs of others is itself an in-built trait, and often skips over—or, more accurately, implicitly defers—verification, but that is another story.)
It seems obvious, but it is not obvious. As part of living, we learn lessons about life, and about what is good or bad, desirable or deplorable, and we assemble, each and every one of us, a complex belief system about how the world should be, or should not be. And then, to a greater or lesser degree, we attempt to impose or impress that set of beliefs upon others.
Most of us create weak rationalizations, often no more than the weight of authority, to justify our beliefs and our imposition of them upon those around us. Some of us do no more than frequently repeat what we believe in clumsy language, without any attempt at argument or logic, with an air of strong certainty. This relies on some deep human—mammalian or animal—social function, and it works. Repetition turns empty speculation into unquestionable agreement, in time. Certainty is a kind of mental infection.
Others, the more sophisticated, create long explications… like this one! They bring to bear a wide array of techniques, both cultural and logical, but, it must be admitted, they inevitably rely, more than one would like to admit, on the power of repetition and the leverage of social instinct.
In any case, the spread of belief is not my concern. What am I pursuing, here, is to draw a sharp distinction—hopefully a justifiable one—between belief—or preference, or aesthetic—and technique—or action, or method, or morality.
All beliefs are aesthetic in nature. All morals are practical in nature. The world of desire is divided into what we want, and how we can achieve it.
And now we come to science.
Science is a form of morality. But this is not necessarily important. “Morality” is a derivation of preferred methods for achieving preferred ends. Science is a means to an end. Functionality supercedes any value judgement.
If you have no end in mind, then science is of limited value. Likewise, if your end does not involve the desire to know more about the world, to distinguish new and more well-described objects–perhaps because these might replace objects to which you have formed a strong attachment—then again, science is not merely useless, it is, in fact, threatening. Science, for some, resides on the extreme positive end of the spectrum of satisfaction, while for others, it resides on the extreme negative end. For still others—perhaps most of the world—it exists almost at the opposite end of the axis of recognition: it is a word, with almost no meaning, and no application in their lives.
Even if you have ends in mind, there may be no need or desire for science in your behaviours. Because understanding may not be one of your goals. Unfortunately—at least for the analytically-minded, who are infuriated by it—many people claim to have goals of some kind, without ever defining what they are. Or, they may define them, but they may be expressions of a completely different philosophical framework.
What does that mean?
Earlier in this essay, we considered the means by which a person—as an agent—attempts to manage their own emotional equilibrium: by performing actions which affect the objects within the world, with the aim of changing their configuration, to align them better with the agent’s preferences, to fulfill a need, which in turn satisfies some desire.
Everything in human life follows this pattern. It is a fractally recursive pattern, consistent with the fractal nature of reality, and recursive layering of dependencies that characterize needs.
Desires are produced through autonomic or intuitive systems; needs are determined relative to those desires; finally, actions are chosen in relation to needs. Desires beget ideals, whereas needs and dependencies beget ideas. Desires define aesthetics, while needs give rise to morality, ethics, and science. Science defines the most effective set of principles and techniques for developing technology. Science informs technology: the development of better specific actions for bringing about change in the environment.
Science figures out how things work. Technology converts understanding into practise. At the top of it all is aesthetics, which defines the preferred outcome, and delineates how the actual outcome matches—or diverges from—the preferred one.
Some disciplines are non-scientific, although they claim otherwise. They don’t adhere to the desires-needs-actions paradigm. At least not explicitly. They avoid stating their actual desires, instead keeping them secret. But they can probably be inferred from observation.
I originally wrote the preceding a few months ago. It was inspired by frustration. Specifically, I had been trying to learn about the study of anthropology. What did anthropologists do? What did they believe? I was not happy with what I found out.
It seems to me that any activity calling itself “the study of humans” has a responsibility to its subject matter. Perhaps the problem with anthropology is its subject matter is too broad. Still, it should acknowledge that fact, and take it into account.
Anthropology, it seems, is less the study of humanity, per se, than the study of human culture. I think my frustration with anthropology stems from an intuition that “culture” is a problematic subject, for many reasons. But fundamentally, you can only study the artifacts of culture, not culture itself. At least, I am not convinced that what anthropologists study is actually culture. It might be possible to study culture, apart from its artifacts, but it would require a far more complex and sophisticated concept of culture.
Culture, to me, is the process of transferring ideas about the world—knowledge, experiences, interpretations, and value judgements—betwee people. While I wrote, above, that I was not interested in this essay about the propagation of belief, there is little doubt in my mind that culture is the process of propagating beliefs between individuals. Group behaviour, driven by beliefs (including not only literal conscious beliefs, intuitions, and assumptions, but also habits, instincts, impulses, and other analogous features of the unconscious mind, and even the most basic reactive spasms of animals with limited nervous systems and no explicit brains), is a product of the beliefs of individuals.
The preceding essay was an attempt to sort out my disorderly thoughts about the underlying nature of human motivation, in relation to belief, and the natural impulses which underlie it. But the purpose is to lay a foundation for considering how these beliefs are shared between people.
This, to me, is what a discipline—an academic or intellectual study—called “anthropology“ should be primarily concerned with. What do we believe; how do we come by those beliefs; how do those beliefs change in response to interactions with both people and the material world: the mental responses to our own sensory experiences? Finally, how does this process, within individuals, effect change in society?
The goal of anthropology should not, by constrast, be concerned with attempts to determine what is good or bad in culture, or to obsess over conflicts (literal or figurative) between societies at different levels of technological development.
My understanding of anthropology is certainly poor. But I spent many hours attempting to find any consideration of this approach to studying human beliefs and their transmission, to no avail. I could find no evidence of any attempt to form a systematic approach to organizing the aims or discoveries of anthropology. There seems to be no organizing principle, no fundamental purpose, little more than a mess of observations distorted by bias and personal attitudes. The whole field seems deeply irresonsible.
The truly discouraging fact is that the world needs such an approach to anthropology. Human beings—human societies—are long overdue for a scientific approach to these questions, which have otherwise been the consideration of philosophers, mostly in the ancient past, when the necessary science did not exist. To some degree, at least at the level of individual experience and belief, it is a subject of study by psychologists, sociologists, and cognitive scientists. But it is nevertheless approached sporadically, in an uncoordinated, fragmented way.
Science, to me, should work similarly to how a person assembles a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a very simple-minded analogy, but I find it very effective.
We can never understand the entirety of the universe. But we can know an entirety of an approximation of the universe. A jigsaw puzzle is different from what it depicts. But it is a reasonable approximation of it, given the constraints of the medium.
The human mind is itself a medium. It is the fundamental medium. It is a medium which can be augmented, thanks to language and symbols, by physical media. But for any individual person, understanding is the sum total of the contents of their conscious minds, to the degree that those contents are inter-related in some larger, coherent pattern.
But, the reality seems to be that very little of the contents of any individual mind is coherent, integrated, or inter-related. Our minds are full of detritus, countless ideas, impressions, experiences, and associations that are not normalized or stabilized, calibrated or even consistent. Our minds are a mess. Certainly my mind is a mess, and I have spent a lot of my time attempting to organize that mess. Whereas, the majority—if not the entirety—of people I have met and conversed with seem to have no conception of any purpose of trying to make coherent sense of their lives and experiences. Or, at best, they have inherited and adopted some form of belief system, usually a religion or some form, which provides the illusion of a coherent framework, into which they can, or believe they can, slot in all experiences, and with which they can interpret and explain those experiences in a consistent manner.
The fact that this is not how it actually transpires, and that, instead, they misremember and rewrite their own experiences, after the fact, to be consistent with their belief framework, is lost on them. That the framework they adhere to is usually deviated, to greater or lesser degree, from that of other adherents, is also lost on them. They indulge their own sense of baseless confidence in the consistency of their attitudes and opinions. They ignore their own complicity in a whitewashing effort that alters history, even reality, at least as they know it.
Most people I meet seem comfortable with treating this flimsy scaffold of understanding as if it were a bastion of stone. It not only frustrates me, it infuriates me. It leaves me feeling isolated, self-conscious, doubtful, and alone. And yet, I am sure that it is important for me to try to improve my own understanding. Not of facts and details about random aspects of reality, but of an over-arching system, a model, of how reality works, at least insofar as I, as a finite information process system, interpret and incorporate the disparate experiences of my life.
My effort is based on a founding assumption: that the universe itself is coherent and consistent. I cannot know this, let alone prove it. But much of what I have tried to inter-relate is consistent; at least the behaviour the physical matter. Human beings are an open question. Except that human beings are physical matter. Complex and unpredictable, yes. Impossible to fully understand, in the sense of making a perfectly complete model (at least, within my own mind), certainly. There is still a possiblity that a group of people and computers could collaboratively assemble and simulate an accurate and complete model of an entire person. But this is not necessary.
What is necessary, for my own comfort and sanity, is to have a coherent and sufficient model. It’s inevitable that some facts of history and experience may never be connected into the whole. As long as they don’t contradict the model, that is OK. Even still, there may be ways to extend the model to incorporate those observations, even if they cannot be explained.
The thing is, am I actually quite hopeful that quite a lot, if not all, of the nature of human beings can be modelled. That it is mostly quite simple. That most of the details are irrelevant.
Human beings are products of evolution. Our brains are finite constructs. Moreover, they are moderately efficient, in the way that all evolved biology is: even though specific bio-chemical processes are exceedingly complex, biological systems tend to re-use the same features over and over.
In any case, a ground up model is not required. Models exist at different levels of abstraction. I am happy to have a high level model, and slowly fill in details as part of the process of building a more detailed and more highly refined model. But any detailed model should be consistent with a more simplified one. That is all I am asking for: that simplifications be consistent; that they be valid and reasonable and sufficiently approximate, as Newtonian physics approximates relativistic physics.
That is my philosophical and ethical dream.